Onna can write the parameters of a spell faster than any of the young men in her village school. But despite her incredible abilities, she’s denied a place at the nation’s premier arcane academy. Undaunted, she sails to the bustling city-state of Hexos, hoping to find a place at a university where they don’t think there’s anything untoward about providing a woman with a magical education. But as soon as Onna arrives, she’s drawn into the mysterious murder of four trolls.
Tsira is a troll who never quite fit into her clan, despite being the leader’s daughter. She decides to strike out on her own and look for work in a human city, but on her way she stumbles upon the body of a half-dead human soldier in the snow. As she slowly nurses him back to health, an unlikely bond forms between them, one that is tested when an unknown mage makes an attempt on Tsira’s life. Soon, unbeknownst to each other, Onna and Tsira both begin devoting their considerable talents to finding out who is targeting trolls, before their homeland is torn apart…
Unnatural Magic, the debut novel from C.M. Waggoner, is available November 5th from Ace Books.
To be introduced to a troll is a very different matter than to be introduced to a human, and all usual rules are to be disregarded. First, it is essential to remember that reigs—who are usually, but not always, of the female sex—assume most leadership roles within troll society, and that trolls therefore admire strength and decisiveness in human women. A young lady who is being introduced to a troll reig should expect to be embraced and kissed briefly on the cheek: this kiss should always be returned to avoid an appearance of haughtiness. Trolls do not generally like to smile at anyone other than intimate friends and family, and a stern countenance should not be taken as churlishness. Bold eye contact, a low-pitched voice, and good posture are all considered attractive, and modesty is not thought of as a particular virtue: compliments should be accepted with a brief “Thank you,” without demurral. A young lady who is accomplished in music or magic might find an excellent audience or conversational partner in even the humblest of trolls, and a fine singing voice is generally much appreciated and applauded . . .
—Mrs. Barton’s Manual of Manners, Cordoline Barton, 6568
When Tsira first heard about the murders, it was in a tea shop.
She was picking up a new knife in Dunnhepst when she spotted another troll. A big reig, tall and good-looking. They kissed. The stranger said her name was Fyllemwydmesura. She was wearing a cloak with hems covered in the kind of embroidery that would take the vahns in Tsira’s clan months to make. Tsira tried not to think too much about how long her clan could eat if they sold something like it.
They ended up sitting down in a little place near the village square. Tsira wasn’t really in the mood to chat with some rich city reig, but it was in custom to share a drink with a traveler.
The owner bowed to them when he brought the drinks. Fyllemwydmesura sat back and looked pleased, like she had probably been born a reig and felt like one her whole life and never had anyone argue with her about it. She looked like someone who was used to being listened to. Not Tsira.
Tsira knew she was meant to be a reig, but people in her clan always told her she was wrong. Acted like she didn’t know what she was. Like maybe she thought that bleeding most months or wearing a reig’s torc could make her a reig without her stepping up to the tasks of leadership and caretaking of vahns and children that came with it. Like calling herself a reig when most people were vahn meant she was stuck on herself. If she wasn’t so small and magicless, no one would have ever asked twice, but she was and they had, so she’d had to think it through. She could make the arguments. She was a reig because imagining herself doing vahn’s work—the detail-work, the patience-work, teaching children and doing embroidery and keeping accounts and all of the other vahn-chores—made her itch. She was a reig like her ma: she had the head for books, the calm steady temper, and the will to be a leader in her clan and take care of any vahns who’d have her. If they ever would have her. That was feeling less likely by the day. Fyllemwydmesura had probably never had anyone ask her if she was sure you wouldn’t rather declare vahn and get taken to clan by a kind steady reig. Tsira wanted to smack her for it.
“It’s good to be back up north,” Fyllemwydmesura said. “Moths here know how to pay their respects.”
Tsira kept her face blank. “Pinks.”
Fyllemwydmesura raised her eyebrows. “What?”
“Call them humans or pinks. Not moths. Pinks around here don’t like it. Trolls don’t much like it, either.” Moths was what stuck-up city trolls called clanless humans.
Fyllemwydmesura brushed her chin with her fingers to show how little she thought of that. “It’s sweet of you to worry about their sensibilities.”
Tsira tried not to look mad. Not that she’d ever met her da—all her ma ever had to say about him was that he was clever, and a sweet little vahn—but she didn’t like hearing some stranger calling his people names. Still, she didn’t feel like getting into an argument. She wouldn’t win with a reig like this anyway. She changed the subject. “You’ve been down south?”
“In Monsatelle. I was installing freezing constructs into ships’ hulls. Easy work for good pay. The humans practically think you’re their Elgar for doing advanced magic.”
“You’re a wizard,” Tsira said. And an arrogant ass, she thought. “Any work down there for a troll who isn’t?”
Tsira had been thinking about heading down to a human city to find work for a while now. It was the best idea she’d come up with. She was too high-ranked as a clan-head’s daughter to not have taken any vahns to her name by now, but not good enough with the vahns to manage it. Not gentle or patient or good enough at detail-work to make a good vahn for a decent reig to care for, either. Shit, she had to start fights just to prove that she didn’t want to declare vahn herself, and while she could find plenty of vahns who were willing to lick her for a night, she couldn’t find too many who’d want a washout as a reig to take them to clan. She wasn’t educated or strong or good-looking enough to make it in Cwydarin or another troll city without a lot of trouble and grief. People up there looked down on anyone from border-clans like hers, thought they were poor and backward. She’d never even been to a real school like a Cwydarin troll, just studied her clan’s grandmother-books and learned what her own ma had to teach her.
Pinks, though. They might not think she was pretty, but she was strong and fast, by pink standards, and had all of a bigger reig’s decisiveness. She could read and write in two languages, turn her hand to cheesemaking and woodwork, and do more mathematics than most pinks could. She could make some money, have some fun. Maybe finally do something that’d impress her ma a little. Maybe convince a good-looking human vahn or two to give her a chance. Not that many human men these days were interested in declaring vahn. Maybe she could find a woman who’d take to it. Or a man who was as odd a man as she was a reig.
That was the plan, at least.
Fyllemwydmesura looked smug. “I don’t know. I never had to look into it. Bricklaying, perhaps.”
Tsira wanted to tell this reig to lick her. Instead, she said, “You from Cwydarin?”
“Yes,” Fyllemwydmesura said. “You could tell from my accent? I don’t have much practice speaking border dialects.”
Tsira took a sip of her tea and said, “No. Just a guess.”
“Well,” Fyllemwydmesura said, “I’ll be glad to get out of here. Have you heard about the murders?”
Tsira shook her head and waited. This Cwydarin reig thought she was lavender to everyone who smelled her, but she wasn’t any good at keeping her face in check. Fyllemwydmesura looked nervous. “I heard about it from the reig who came to replace me at the shipyard. Some moth’s been murdering border-trolls, cutting them up like laboratory specimens.”
Tsira kept her face steady. “How do you know it was a human?”
“They say there were traces of human magic on the body. But of course it was a human. Do you really think one of the blood would murder a child and cut her up like a goat?”
Tsira shrugged. “Believe anything of anyone who isn’t my mother.” She stood up and put some money on the table. “Long life to your children,” she said, because her ma raised her to be polite. Then she left.
She didn’t really think about the murders after that. Figured it was just gossip: you heard a lot of strange things from travelers. Couldn’t believe everything you heard from every Jok or Elgarson passing through. She just lived like she usually did. Did her work. Minded her business. Milked her goats. Sat by the fire in her old abandoned cave house, thinking about how she’d moved in temporarily and ended up staying for three years. And about how she felt older than she was, some days. And about making a change.
When the news came, it came quickly, new strange rumors springing up every time she went into town. A child had been killed. The child’s mother attacked Coldstream village. Some humans went after her whole clan for revenge. Tsira couldn’t make any sense out of it. All her neighbors were fighting like they hadn’t all been trading at the same market three weeks ago. Not that she’d ever been all that social with any of them, but still. Seemed like a long road from selling someone a jar of apple-blossom honey to killing them in their bed at night.
She made the three-hour walk to visit her ma, just to make sure that everything at the winter seat was all right, and she found everyone acting like normal. Her ma told her again that she thought Tsira should declare herself vahn and get taken under a good reig’s name. Then she told Tsira she looked thin and made her eat about a pound of cheese with her dinner.
Tsira escaped at dawn the next morning. It looked like snow—they got plenty of snow this late, up here in the mountains, even if you’d hit spring just a few hours south—but she decided to risk it. Figured she’d take a blizzard over swallowing her words around her ma all day. You couldn’t argue with a blizzard or with Tsira’s mother, but at least the blizzard wouldn’t criticize your logic if you tried.
By the time she got close to home she was doing a pretty good job criticizing herself. It was dark, and the snow was coming down hard. She had on her good Cwydarin-made boots, the ones spelled to keep the water out. It was still damn cold. She put her head down and walked. Didn’t see the pink until she’d nearly tripped over him.
He was just a little thing. She thought he was a child at first, but then she remembered that humans always looked smaller to her after she’d been with her clan. He was still pretty tiny, though. Weak and helpless on the ground. Dressed like he was Daeslundic military, in trousers instead of a skirt. His skin was very pale, his hair close to black, his eyes wide and terrified. She heard the quick rasp of his breath.
“Evening, pink,” she said. Then she leaned down and picked him up.
Red sugar white sugar, buy a pat of butter, run to the dairy man and make the man an offer. Red cherries white cherries pick a peck for cheaper, you can catch a pretty bird but you can never keep her. Cold stove hot stove, try and spare your skin, find a troll to marry you and never work again!
—Leiscourt Children’s Skipping Song, Trad.
By the time the army got to Coldstream Village, there wasn’t much left of the place.
From what Jeckran could tell there hadn’t been much to begin with. It was the sort of town that half the men in his platoon had joined the army to get away from: a few little shops, a cluster of houses, and a scattering of farmers’ cottages trailing into the hills. Some of the houses had roses at the front—though they were only gray vines now, rattling against the stones with a sound like dice in a cup whenever the wind blew—and one could imagine someone’s old maiden aunt tottering out to tend them.
Anyone taking the new highway could easily pass by Coldstream without noting anything out of the ordinary. From horseback a man was unlikely to notice how the laundry on the lines was hanging too low, heavy with a week of ice. From a passing stagecoach a traveler wouldn’t see the corpses in the streets.
The mortal remains of the citizens of Coldstream littered the ground like so many cigarette butts. Some were still dressed in their slippers and nightcaps; most looked as if their necks had been snapped or their throats ripped out before they could even think to run. The village children were the only survivors. They were staying at a camp a few miles off, cared for by members of the county Women’s Charitable Legion. The children had walked for miles before anyone found them, and no living person had entered the village in the two weeks since the children left it. In that time the silence had been absorbed into the very mud of the place. Most of the two hundred men of the company didn’t speak above a whisper.
They passed a dead girl lying in a ditch: an unprepossessing young woman with nothing-colored hair and a cheap cotton dress printed with blue cornflowers. She could have been a scullery maid in any kitchen in Leiscourt. She could very well have been his scullery maid: Jeckran remembered similar faces from his childhood. He looked away, but not before noticing a few of the men making Elgar’s Circles over her body and on their foreheads. “Looks like my baby sister,” one of them said.
They walked past a baker’s shop with loaves of bread and cream cakes arranged in the front window, preserved like specimens under bell jars by the cold. The baker was splayed facedown on the street just past the shop’s door, one arm flung out in front of him. His head was lying a bit past his hand as if he was reaching to fix it back onto his neck.
Jeckran stopped to light a cigarette and took a long drag, feeling his shoulders climb back down from their positions beside his ears. One of the enlisted men walked up to his side, a dark-haired young person with a face that suggested he had spent his entire childhood watching his bread and butter fall to the floor butter-side down. A moment later Jeckran’s batman Calt walked up, glancing between his friend and his superior officer as if he was afraid that something untoward might happen.
Calt gave Jeckran a little salute. “Lieutenant.” His friend followed suit, drearily.
Jeckran gestured at the baker’s body, attempting to make conversation. “Was that by chance, do you suppose, or did the troll responsible have a macabre sense of humor?”
Calt flinched. The boy Jeckran didn’t know screwed up his face with enough vigor to open a case of wine bottles. “Dunno what macabre is, sir, but I don’t see nothing humorous about it.”
“No, I don’t suppose that you would,” Jeckran said, and blew a thin stream of smoke skyward, hoping that this would encourage the boy to go away.
Instead, the boy only scowled more deeply. “Calt’s pa is a baker.”
Jeckran suppressed a wince. He thought of apologizing, but what would the apology be for? So he just said, “Ah.” It was a very familiar feeling ah. He felt that he had a particular genius for always saying the exact thing that was most detestable to his companions and then emitting a feeble, wheezing little “ah” when reprimanded, like the last pitiful gout of steam from a kettle that had been lifted from the stovetop.
“Trolls must be terrible, wicked people,” said Calt, who had been raised in an old-fashioned halton and who prayed for an hour every morning at dawn. “I’ve heard they don’t believe in God even, just philosophy.”
Jeckran looked down at Calt’s wide, earnest face and was suddenly furious, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. Perhaps it was that Calt still trusted his lieutenant, despite the fact that Jeckran’s role was to lead him directly into an engagement that Jeckran was increasingly sure would be a blood-drenched farce. Perhaps it was that Jeckran was fond of Calt despite the fact that Calt was manifestly a bit of a turnip.
“Most northerners would say that they’re normally perfectly amiable neighbors, and that their children are excellent models of thrift and studiousness for human youth. I imagine that the residents of Coldstream might disagree. Move along, men,” he said. Then he continued walking toward the muddy gray hills before them, allowing the men to direct their glares at his back, if they so wished.
The whole campaign in Coldstream was a backward, embarrassing sort of affair. His men were too green, and his orders were too scattered, and everyone involved desperately wished that their platoon had been deployed to somewhere more congenial. Back to Mendosa, for example, where they could be shot at and come down with wizard-constructed wasting diseases because Governor Bryce, the great silly ass, would rather quarrel over fishing rights with the new conservative Mendosan government than simply draw up a new contract. In Mendosa, at least, one enjoyed the sunshine and occasionally ate a few fresh figs whilst contemplating one’s ensuing demise.
At the moment, an incurable flux or a back full of bullets struck Jeckran as infinitely preferable to the awful silence of Coldstream village.
All the more disquieting was the fact that no one could agree on why six rogue trolls had suddenly wiped out an entire human village. Rumors were that the attack was retaliation for the murder of a troll child, but that had yet to be confirmed by any authorities. The local troll clans, as a result of their refusal to pay taxes to the government in Cwydarin, didn’t benefit from their excellent police force, and there certainly didn’t seem to be any connection to Coldstream. The local troll clan-heads claimed no involvement, and after a human mob had gone after the nearest troll village in retaliation, the entire region had dissolved into chaos. The army, from what Jeckran could tell, had been sent to Coldstream largely as a symbolic gesture in order to prevent riots from breaking out in Leiscourt. Antigovernment hysteria among Leiscourt’s lower classes continued to mount despite a recent declaration from the great-clans of Cwydarin that they supported the Daeslundic government in its efforts to arrest, try, and execute any troll found to have molested a human in any fashion. The general sense in the penny press was that the callous assemblors and headmen who ruled Daeslund would prefer to see a thousand poor human villagers die instead of jeopardizing relations with their powerful troll allies, who were, presumably, involved in some sort of wicked scheme to torment the humans of Daeslund’s northernmost counties.
Jeckran, for his part, thought that risking their lives in a deadly encounter with a group of rogue trolls before the situation was clear seemed an odd way to defend the value of the lives of ordinary Daeslunders. Unfortunately, he was only a single man with a single vote for his county assemblor, and his body was likely more valuable as a lifeless symbol of the government’s devotion to its people than it would be if it were enjoying a glass of beer and a cigarette at a charming seaside resort.
It had been mentioned to Jeckran, once or twice, that he had an unattractive tendency toward cynicism.
Still, the whole business really did make one uneasy. It was out of the natural order of things. Jeckran had listened to as many thrilling bedtimes stories about Lorag the Fierce, the mythic troll monster, as any Daeslundic child, but trolls, in real life, held a certain status within Daeslundic society. To have a wealthy troll over to dinner was a tremendous social coup for any headwife with an eye to establishing herself as a hostess of note, while third- and fourth-ranked headmen’s families contented themselves with serving troll-made cheese at parties or wearing gowns with troll embroidery. Scions of the oldest Daeslundic clans tended to boast about their lines having at one point been under the name of a troll clan-head, and therefore truly “blue-blooded” in the way that no upstart three-hundred-year-old clan could ever be.
Jeckran’s own mother had sometimes claimed troll connections in their clan history, though Jeckran found this highly unlikely. His father’s clan had only recently risen to a fifth-ranked headmanship, and his mother’s family was a mixture of beautiful, ambitious, and utterly clanless Daeslundic women and the wealthy foreign merchants who had financed their slow march into society. Jeckran, therefore, was more the product of foreign and female ingenuity than he was of Daeslund’s ancient troll-blooded heroes. Still, Jeckran, as a headman’s son, had been raised to think of trolls as people to be admired. They had, so the stories went, brought magic and science to the benighted humans of Daeslund and raised up great human clans as headmen in their wake.
And now Lorag the Fierce had suddenly emerged from the storybooks to destroy a village and tear a baker’s head off.
When Jeckran relayed the major’s orders to dig pits for the bodies and make camp for the night, his men thought themselves very ill-used: either because they didn’t relish digging graves, they disliked the idea of sleeping so close to Coldstream, they were lazy as a matter of character, or they were insubordinate as a matter of principle. They sulked, and the sergeant screamed, and to keep his men from shirking, Jeckran was forced to stand by with his boots slowly sinking into the boggy ground, watching them pound tent poles into half a foot of mud. He thought to lend a hand, seeing what a dreadful time they were having, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He was, after all, an officer, and he didn’t see the point of making himself miserable in some transparent attempt to endear himself to a group of men who disliked him on principle and would start making jokes about his eccentric personal habits the instant he turned his back.
Once his tent was finally erected, Jeckran retired inside and looked over his maps while Calt cooked his supper. It was another five hours’ march to the nearest troll village, but of course that hardly signified. The local trolls—the Dachunath, their great-clan was called—were goat farmers, and they were used to moving between seasonal villages for better pasture for their flocks. They knew their land well, and if the Dachunath were involved, they would have little difficulty packing up and moving.
Jeckran wished, not for the first time, that someone in command could have sent a wizard scout to accompany the platoon. The odds were certainly on their side—an entire platoon sent to arrest six outlaws—but infuriated trolls were still not at all the sort of people Jeckran fancied engaging in a merry after-dinner game of seek-and-ye-find-me. If the trolls had a wizard with them, Jeckran thought, his men might as well have spent the day digging graves for themselves.
At least his second set of instructions was clearer, if no more appealing. He was to take a small patrol and arrest the troll who was sheltering in an abandoned cave-dwelling a day’s march northeast of Coldstream. He found the cave on the map and circled it with a pencil. According to their local informants, the troll had been living there peacefully for years, but locals claimed that a troll matching his description had been seen beating a human to death with another man’s severed leg.
When Jeckran took his small patrol to engage the troll, he did not plan to be in the van.
Having exhausted all interest from his maps, he rummaged in his pack until he found his sketchbook and a pencil and began to draw a troll. It wasn’t very good; something about the limbs struck him as unnatural, as if they were constructed from earthworms. He supposed this was for the best. He preferred drawing from life, but in this case, he was rather relieved not to be in such intimate proximity with his subject.
Then Calt materialized out of the ether to announce that supper was ready, which sent Jeckran jolting halfway to the ceiling of the tent. The sketchbook dropped from his lap and fell open on the ground, and Jeckran’s face went hot. It was wonderfully in line with the normal run of his luck that, though his sketchbook was composed almost entirely of pastoral landscapes, crumbling ruins, and ships at harbor, it had happened to fall open on a group of nudes.
In fact, the sketch was of the famous marble Thasmus Attended by Death’s Daughters at Bonsetti, which was as far as Jeckran had gotten on the eastern tour before he ran out of money. Judging from the fixed look of horror on the face of his batman, Calt was not familiar with Tiorgo Fante’s later works, or indeed with any works of the ancient masters. Jeckran had to admit to himself that, lacking context, it did look a great deal like a soppy young fellow lolling on a boulder without any clothes on, while a number of very immodest young ladies pranced about in the vicinity.
“You’re dismissed, Calt,” he said, and Calt wasted no time showing himself out.
Jeckran ate alone, as usual, and pondered whether this little episode with Calt would do any damage to his reputation among the men. He thought not. His reputation among the men was already such that an additional rumor of his wanton un-Elgarite inclinations couldn’t possibly hurt it much more. It was all rather trying. The fact of the matter was that he had as much actual experience of being wrapped in the embrace of a lover as he had in riding camels—which was to say that he had done both once, briefly and uncomfortably. It was not, of course, possible to explain so much to the most fervently Elgarite men of his platoon, whom he doubted would be very interested in a spirited debate of the philospher Armund Clearmaker’s theories on the five expressions of desire versus Officiant Kesper Brown’s views on cleansing meditation and denial of the flesh.
Once he was finished eating, Jeckran lay down with his wet woolen stockings toasting by the stove and considered the things that were wretched about the army. The blisters, and the dreadful coffee, and the horrid, endless damp. Camp latrines. The men, with their constant snickering. Tents, cots, insufficient shaving soap, dreary rations, dead girls in the mud, and being told that one had to march off and single-handedly attempt to arrest a ten-foot troll who had recently beaten a man to death with his own severed limb. It struck him suddenly how lucky the humans of Daeslund were that trolls as a people were apparently more interested in the construction of cities and the development of fine cuisine over the past eight hundred–odd years than they were in violent conquest.
Then, because he felt a sort of perverse pleasure in dwelling upon and thus increasing his own misery, Jeckran set himself to considering things that he missed. Gas lighting, for instance. He liked wizard-lamps the best, the kind that Adomo Darvey-Huntington had recently installed at his place in Corpsir, but Jeckran thought that gas was more appropriate to the idle fantasies of a member of the impoverished headmanship. Brandy and soda. Snooker. A new skirted suit that showed the calves to their best advantage. Being conveyed by cab in the winter, and conveying oneself in a curricle in the summer. Libraries. Adomo Darvey-Huntington had wizard-lamps in his library, and probably someone at hand to bring a man a brandy and soda while he sat in an armchair. Jeckran missed armchairs.
He managed to soothe himself to sleep with thoughts of armchairs, and he woke up in a sort of confusion, his bedclothes damp with sweat, a choked-off scream in his throat. He had dreamt of Mendosa, of warm sun and bright screams and white paving stones spattered with blood, of rotting figs dropping onto rotting corpses, and that combined with his thoughts of brandy and armchairs served only to make the icy quiet of Coldstream even more deeply unreal than it had the day before.
He had thought, in Mendosa, that he would return home when the war was over. Instead he had brought war back with him, rattling with the Mendosan coins in the bottom of his rucksack. The heat and the terror sunk into his bones.
It started to snow the morning that they marched out of Coldstream, a heavy, steady fall that blotted out anything more than a few feet away. As was usual, no one knew whether or not any persons in command would like for them to stop, so they kept on, even as the going got rougher through the drifts.
When he got out of the army, Jeckran thought, he would never walk again. He would purchase one of those Hexian floating carts and loll about like some particularly shiftless Leiscourt man-about-town, and his life would be the richer for it.
The image of that baker suddenly intruded into his thoughts. The rigid fingers stretching out toward the severed head. Two hundred of us, he thought, reminding himself of the odds. A company of two hundred human soldiers to apprehend six troll civilians. The odds ought to be in their favor, but it wasn’t as if they had any modern accounts of war with trolls to refer to in the matter. The last similar skirmish had taken place a century before Jeckran was born. He touched the butt of his pistol. They would deal with these six first, and then the one in that cave up the mountain, and then it would be finished.
The odds didn’t stop him from nearly losing his breakfast when the call went up that a troll had been spotted on their left flank.
The snow was too thick to see much of anything. They formed ranks with their hands thrust out before them, stumbling about in the muck. He could hear curses, labored breathing. Then, from his right, a scream.
The troll was only a few yards away, ten feet tall at least, a dead soldier gripped in his huge gray hand like a club. He was grinning.
Everyone started shooting. They shot, and the troll kept coming, holding the corpse across his chest with one enormous hand and cutting men down with the other, snapping necks as if they were twigs and grinning all the while. He was using some sort of magic, his hands first striking like clubs and then cutting into flesh like knives. Jeckran had read about this, about how trolls would smile as they fought to show their enemies that they weren’t afraid, but to see it was more terrifying than anything he had imagined. The troll fought like he had never done anything else. He was bleeding from half a dozen wounds, and still he came on. He came on like an avalanche.
For the first time in ten years, Jeckran thought about God.
Someone prayed, his voice a wail, the words coming out in one long breath. “Oh blessed Elgar I commend myself to your keeping grant me ease in reliving—”
Jeckran gasped, coughed, and found his voice. “His head, you asses! Aim for his head!”
The men didn’t hear him, and before he could convince himself to lie facedown in the mud and pray that his next attempt at life would be more virtuous and less miserable than this one, he was walking toward the troll, firing.
Hated Jeckran might be, but not a man in his platoon would say a word against his marksmanship. The troll went down at the third bullet.
For a long moment there was quiet. One of the men went to slap Jeckran on the back. “Don’t touch me,” he said and stepped away. His hands were shaking. He tried to light a cigarette, but gave up, cursing, the shaking too violent for him to manage it.
He looked at his men. They had formed a ragged half circle around him as if waiting to receive his council. He drew in a breath. “Good God. Might I invite you to reform your fucking ranks?”
A few of the men lurched to obey him, while others just stood there, vacant. One young soldier stepped aside to vomit.
And then a blast of trumpets.
An unthinkable noise. What thunder would sound like if it screamed. Someone said, “Oh, God.” There was some magic in the sound, something being done to them. Jeckran’s head was splitting, his vision blurred.
He smelled piss. Another blast followed, and another, and another still. More than six, far more, the sound endless and all around them, and then it was madness.
The men broke ranks immediately. Some charged forward and fired their rifles at random, some raced off in the opposite direction, and all the while the roaring came closer, closer, until the trolls were among them. The dead troll rose to his feet again, wiping blood from his forehead. Jeckran sobbed.
White snow, white teeth. The crackle of magic. The snow was turning red. Calt was close by. Jeckran could see his orange beard and the rising bulk of the troll behind him.
He shouted out a warning. “Calt! Calt, for God’s sake, behind you!”
But too late. The troll picked Calt right off his feet and removed his arm. There was screaming. Jeckran didn’t know if it was him or Calt or some other poor damned creature.
The troll tossed Calt’s body away and looked toward Jeckran, and in that moment Lieutenant Phillim Kail Jeckran took careful stock of his position.
Many of the men had already bolted like green horses at the sound of a shot. Raw, honest terror was not what precipitated Jeckran’s decision, though he held no illusions of himself as a man of great courage. Rather, he made a simple calculation: If he ran and survived, he quite likely would be hunted down and shot by his own military as a coward, making himself utterly infamous and bringing disgrace upon his entire family. If, on the other hand, he stayed to fight, the even greater likelihood was that within moments the troll facing him would rip his still-beating heart from his chest and toss it aside like a cherry pit.
Jeckran ran like hell.
The snow was almost to his knees, so every step was either a labored push forward or an ungainly hop. Still, he supposed that he should thank his expensive scholar-hall education; years of participating in games of hare and hounds had prepared him beautifully for running away from the field of battle and leaping over the dead and dying bodies of his fallen comrades. He passed the other deserters quite quickly.
Even when his side cramped, terror gave him speed.
Eventually, the sounds of gunfire and screaming faded away in the distance until there was nothing but snow, before him and behind him and falling slowly from the flat gray sky. He had no idea where he was: the rough road they had marched along was no longer visible.
It occurred to Jeckran that he had successfully escaped the trolls only to die of exposure, which annoyed him exceedingly. If he had known, he would have stayed for the battle and made his exit in a spatter of glory.
The entire situation struck him as deeply unfair. He had never entertained dreams of glorious battle: the decision to buy his commission had been a purely pragmatic one. He needed to make a living. His father had been in embarrassed circumstances for most of Jeckran’s lifetime, and Jeckran’s mother had been forced to sell the last few pieces of her wedding gold in order to scrape together enough for the commission. The army was a respectable career for a headman’s son, and Jeckran’s parents had nurtured hopes that he would distinguish himself. And he had, in a way, in Mendosa. He had been presented with a medal for valor, which led him to suppose that by “valor” they meant “extraordinary viciousness in a pinch” or “unflagging desire to keep his own worthless hide in one piece.” If the desire to not die while still young was valor, he had exhibited far more of it today than he ever had in Mendosa.
He thought of what his mother’s face would look like if she was to hear of his being shot for cowardice and had to stop to catch his breath.
He could see it in the air, his breath. A little white cloud. Would he be able to watch its shape change as he died? It was the sort of topic upon which a cleverer and more patient man could base an academic study.
He wondered if it was usual to have thoughts like these as one was dying.
It grew darker, and the sweat from running turned cold against his skin. His feet burned. He knew that Coldstream could only be a few hours’ walk away, but he didn’t know in which direction. The mountains, once distant, had drawn closer.
His feet went numb. He imagined them turning black and made himself nauseous. He thought for a moment of lying down for a rest, then shook himself. That was how men died, lying down to sleep in the snow. If he could keep himself moving, he might live through the night, might make it to a village by morning. The money in his pockets would be enough for a bit of food, a change of clothes, and a seat in a stagecoach to the Esiphian border. That was all that he needed. Thinking about it cheered him enough to speed his steps, until he stepped into a crevice, heard a sickening crack, felt a gut-churning bolt of pain, and found himself lying in the snow with his cheek pressed into the ground.
He tried and failed not to whimper.
He thought it rather unfair that the pain in his ankle kept him from drifting off peacefully into unconsciousness, as one was supposed to when freezing to death, but the pain in his ankle ruined even this. Instead he found himself dreadfully alert and very aware of the silence around him. The sound of his own breathing was unbearable. He tried to sing a bit, but stopped at once: he sounded less like a man laughing in the face of danger and more like someone lying alone with a broken ankle on a godforsaken ice-covered mountaintop. And then, in the perfect silence following his singing, he heard footsteps.
Footsteps of someone very large. Jeckran thought to yell for help, then stopped. If a soldier of his platoon or an enemy troll found him, they’d ensure he enjoyed a worse death than quietly freezing. He would much rather have his mother believe that he had been torn to pieces by an outlaw border-troll on the field of battle than learn he had been shot after an unsuccessful attempt at desertion. Or, for that matter, having run away from battle and then been killed by a border-troll, which struck him as a particularly ghastly irony.
The footsteps grew louder, and a figure appeared out of the darkness. A massive figure, heavily wrapped in furs. The figure drew closer, and Jeckran knew what it must be even before he turned his head enough to see the troll’s face. It was mostly in shadow, but the moonlight gleamed on his teeth as he grinned.
“Evening, pink,” the troll said, and lifted Jeckran up like a child. Pain ripped through his ankle and terror through his gut, and he had just enough time to feel thoroughly ashamed before he retched and fainted.
Excerpted from Unnatural Magic, copyright © 2019 by C.M. Waggoner